SDHC’s STEM Institutes: Cultivating The Spirit of Innovation through STEM Education


We all know science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are drivers of our economy. They form the nexus for launching lucrative careers that belong not to a distant future, but are “here and now”.

In recent years STEM has gained considerable attention on the local and national level. Then too, STEM is not a “new” term. According to a study conducted by Enterprise Florida Inc., “more and more jobs will require basic understanding of scientific and mathematical principles, and/or problem-solving skills developed through STEM coursework.” As the economic rudder shifts towards a knowledge-based economy, the need for a dynamic and well-educated workforce equipped in STEM-related skills has assumed great prominence.

Rob Weinberg, district resource teacher for career and technical education curriculum and STEM initiatives at the School District of Hillsborough County in Florida observes “when students are detached from STEM, the idea of innovation inevitably diminishes.” He says the shift in focus can be attributed to a deficiency in the number of individuals actively engaged and/or pursuing STEM-based careers and educational pathways. This tip in balance has created a vacuum of sorts, and has dramatically increased the need to educate, and train the future workforce to be knowledgeable in all of these areas.

students from the robotics institute at McLane MS
The STEM Institutes at the School District of Hillsborough County is an initiative designed to cultivate a spirit of innovation by developing passion, and excitement, as well as preparation in STEM-related educational pathways. The Institutes were established in 2007, and follow the National Career Academy Coalition model with an overall goal to help students at the middle school level transition/articulate into high school Career Academies/programs. There are currently five middle schools operating under the common umbrella of the STEM Institutes. Each has a STEM theme, or unique of its own flavor. For example Buchanan has a Biotechnology focus, Greco has a Pre-Engineering academy, Madison with an Aerospace/Astronautics focus, McLane offers Robotics, and Young has Robotics and Engineering/Architecture academy.

So what is the hallmark, or the driving force behind the success of the STEM institutes? The answer lies in its state-of-the-art programs which are geared to foster minds-on, hands-on activities. Besides being the only school district in Florida to have STEM Institutes at the middle school level, one of the defining aspects of the institutes is the individual/one-on-one attention students receive from the time they enter the program to the time they enter high school. In terms of curriculum, Weinberg says the District follows program standards outlined by the state that have industry-relevant applications. “Each STEM institute flavors instructional lessons and material to their STEM theme, and each math and science course is required to teach district approved courses.” For example, in an architecture themed institute, the math concept of “area” can be geared to calculate the area of a family room rather than doing random number problems.

Over the course of 3 years, the Institutes have made quite an impact. Preliminary data suggests approximately 40% of students from Buchanan’s STEM institute will be pursuing an Engineering-related courses in high school. The preliminary survey also shows students from STEM Institutes generally equal, or surpass student test scores within their schools.

Factors that have spurred success on the teacher, and administrator side of the continuum include tremendous district support, low teacher turn-over rates, numerous professional development opportunities, as well as parent/community involvement. “This is a program that has impact on students because they want to be here, teachers want to teach the subject matter, and administrators are highly committed to the future success of the program.” Moreover, programs like the “Connect-thru-STEM” initiative have given teachers the opportunity to develop high student interest, integrated and authentic curriculum based on STEM teacher’s experiences with related local business and industry.

The STEM Institutes also enjoy a close partnership with FLATE. In October, 2010 several teachers from the institutues will visit FLATE and the Engineering Technology program at Hillsborough Community College in Brandon. FLATE will provide professional development about a variety of STEM careers, have demonstrations of some of the advanced technology equipment in the HCC labs, provide technical content information, as well as tips on how to weave STEM, social sciences, and language arts into fully integrated learning experiences for students and teachers alike.

The intent is clearly to inspire and excite students about STEM. Weinberg notes that in the last 50 years or so, drivers and innovators of our economy like the Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords or the Wright Brothers are not here. He sees the need to “excite and interest young people to step into those shoes once again.” Weinberg points to STEM as a fun way of earning a living, and fields which offers endless opportunities. He wants students to have an authentic experience, and says the best way to do this is to create a “hook” to keep them engaged, help develop team-work, problem-solving skills and enable critical thinking which could potentially lead to life-long learning.

Looking through the prism of the future, SDHC’s STEM institutes are poised to diversify/include various emerging technologies/fields. Some of these themes include health sciences, pre-nursing, pre-veterinary, agro-sciences, aquaponics, hydroponics or any high-interest and high-growth areas such as transportation, and alternate energy. Weinberg hopes exposure to these fields at the middle school level will expose and spark students’ interest in STEM-related fields in future. As he rightly concludes “Technology and Engineering is what brings math and science alive—providing students with these kinds of opportunities helps makes math and science alive.”

For more information on the STEM institutes at SDHC contact Rob Weinberg at 813.231.1894/ robert.weinberg@sdhc.k12.fl.us, or visit www.sdhc.k12.fl.us. You can also read the entire transcript of the Rob’s interview on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/madeinflorida.

Watch the WTSP 10 Connect News broadcast about the STEM Institutes